COVID-19 could qualify as either an injury by accident or an occupational disease if it comes from a work-related exposure. For workers’ comp to pay in North Carolina, an injured worker must either have an injury by accident or an occupational disease that arises out of the employment.
Coronavirus as an injury by accident: An injury must be by accident to be covered by workers’ comp. That means it must be unusual and from a specific event. The rule does not always apply, like for back injuries. But if a worker is hurt while doing her regular job in the regular way, the employer often denies the claim.
- Sharon is a clerk at the hospital. Because they are short staffed, she is assigned to clean up after a coronavirus patient. Sharon gets the virus and is hospitalized. Is her claim payable under NC workers’ comp? Yes. Sharon’s new job duties make the exposure an accident.
- Hallie works at a factory.. She comes down with coronavirus symptoms at work but cannot trace where she was exposed. She is instructed to remain at home. Will she be able to get NC workers’ compensation benefits? No. Hallie did not describe an injury by accident.
- Assad’s sales job requires plane travel. On a trip back home from Seattle, Assad’s seatmate coughs and gives him coronavirus. Is this covered by NC workers’ comp? Yes. Assad’s travel falls into an exception; his travel to highly affected areas puts him at risk for coronavirus. Assad’s normal work was interrupted by the infected seatmate.
Coronavirus as an occupational disease: The rule is that an occupational disease has to be either a condition listed in the law (like asbestosis or hearing loss from noise at work) or a condition that is both caused by your job and that you have an increased risk of getting because of your job duties.
- You cannot get workers’ compensation for an ordinary disease of life. So if your coworker has the flu, and you get it, no workers’ compensation is payable to you.
- But if you get hepatitis from an exposure while you were working at the hospital, you get workers’ comp.
- An occupational disease under workers’ comp often occurs over time, but does not have to; it can come from a single exposure.
First responders and medical personnel and coronavirus: Medical personnel and hospital workers should be able to meet the tests for occupational disease if they contract COVID-19 from work.
- OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, lists healthcare workers as having a high to very high risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. The risk comes from having to perform procedures on infected persons, transporting them, or caring for them.
- Kevin, a paramedic, responded to a nursing home where two people were sick with fever and difficulty breathing. He stabilized them in the ambulance. Kevin experienced symptoms 5 days later.
- Kevin’s job caused him to become infected and placed him at an increased risk of getting coronavirus. This meets the occupational disease test under workers’ comp.
What benefits are payable if your COVID-19 is covered by workers’ comp?
- Compensation for time out of work. Most cases are mild. People who have coronavirus, or who have been exposed, must self-quarantine. You would not be allowed to go to work for fourteen days or more. Many are too sick to work for much longer periods of time.
- Medical treatment is paid by workers’ comp for covered conditions. Treatment could be minor for a mild case, or cost hundreds of thousand of dollars if the injured worker needed to be placed on a ventilator and to spend weeks in the hospital.
- Compensation for any permanent damage to the lungs, or any other permanent condition suffered as a result or the infection or treatment.
Employers and insurance companies may resist paying benefits for coronavirus, even for healthcare workers. The spread of the disease is so rapid that they may argue that it is a risk to everyone. If you or a loved one has a question about NC workers’ comp, call the workers’ compensation specialists at Johnson & Groninger PLLC at 919-240-4054.